October 29, 1998 2:10 PM PST

John Glenn's space jam

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Most Web users hoping to catch a glimpse of John Glenn's historic space shuttle lift-off today learned the hard way that, despite the incredible advances in technology that streams video to the Internet, they were better off trying to find a good old-fashioned television.

Sites that promised live Webcasts of Glenn's return to space were jammed to the gills. Many were too full for Net users even to enter. CNN, for instance, reported that the site experienced its highest volume ever.

Just before the launch, the CNN sites were serving 494,000 hits per minute. CNN's previous recorded highest rate was 340,000 hits per minute, just before the online release of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the White House sex scandal September 11.

The lucky ones who actually got through to the front doors of the various sites often were foiled when they clicked on the button that would deliver the video feed.

And it remains unclear whether those who got in were able to get a good view of the shuttle. At least one Net streaming broadcast stopped to rebuffer more times than a car wash.

"When we tried between 10 and 11 (PT) this morning to sign onto any of the services broadcasting the event, we couldn't log on or get a signal good enough to take part in the event," said Farhan Memon, executive producer for Yack, a programming guide for Web chats and broadcast.

"I was using a 28.8-[kbps modem], and it was painful. I got about 15 seconds of Peter Jennings, and then he would garble and break up. I tried using the Discovery Channel and both audio and video was unusable. If it's as frustrating for me as someone who is covering the data broadcasting field, imagine how it must be for the average Internet user who is so looking forward to seeing John Glenn shoot up into space on his computer screen yet couldn't log."

When Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, television was still a nascent industry. Those who remember the flight recall grainy black-and-white pictures of the lift-off and, a few years later, equally fuzzy transmission of Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon.

The Internet demonstrated today that the Internet is still in its early adolescence, and that true convergence--in which television and the Web and any number of devices become indistinguishable from one another--is still a way off.

"It would seem that we have a long ways to go yet before it actually becomes an experience that people can rely on," Memon said."

Memon warned that if people are disappointed by full servers too many times, they will give up on the Net, at least as a broadcast medium.

"I think that broadcasters who attempt to put on these events have to ensure they have enough bandwidth and server capacity to properly service those people who are interested in coming to their event," Memon said. "If you keep on failing the Internet population that is interested, they'll soon choose not to participate because they'll be turned off to the experience."

"We're still in the early stages of Internet broadcasting," he said. "They do have to improve if people are going to look upon Net events as an alternative to TV."

But the very fact that so many people turned to the Net both to find information about the flight and at least attempt to view live streaming video is a sign that the Net is becoming increasingly mainstream.

"If there's a silver lining in this cloud," Memon said, "this congestion was caused by the fact that so many people wanted to look on it on their computer screens. People are using computers as an alternative to traditional broadcasting."

 

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